Broken Words, In Four Parts

‘The Tower Of Babel,’ Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“He discovers that words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say.” Paul Auster, Ghosts

The dark joke at the heart of the Harry Potter series is the fact that an eleven-year-old boy is more willing and able to name evil than the adults that are sworn to protect him from it. He’s routinely castigated for daring to utter the name “Voldemort,” and the grown-up placeholders for Voldemort are comically murky: He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, You-Know-Who. Even when Voldemort unequivocally returns and kills a Hogwarts student in front of Harry, he is not believed. He is ignored, even silenced by adults (specifically by the politicians—author J.K. Rowling makes a magical world that nonetheless functions much like our own).

The Harry Potter series subtly echoes “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, swindlers dress the emperor in imaginary, unseeable clothes, and his subjects ignore this fact even though they can see the “clothes” are false. Finally, a child speaks up, pointing out to a crowd that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. That’s where I remembered the story ending, illustrating the bravery and intelligence of children. But the original text ends on a sadder note: after being called out, the emperor walks “more proudly than ever” in his invisible clothes.

At the end of the Harry Potter series, Professor Dumbledore reminds Harry that “words are… our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” Spells, after all, are conjured through words, and across the books, misspoken spells have a habit of inflicting harm on the speaker themselves. But broken words—words used to misinform, obscure, or degrade meaning—are still incredibly powerful. Over time, they erode tongues, minds, and hearts. They can fracture societies. The once-sturdy foundation sinks into quicksand, into a routine of recrimination, half-truths, and lies.

It is staggering how normalized this kind of spellbound discourse has become in American life. You feel crazy for seeing so much craziness in everyday communication, and speaking out against so much craziness starts to feel even crazier. You get to a point where you can’t even trust your own words anymore.

“To what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? To any extent.” Paul Auster, City Of Glass

In his poem “Big Grab,” Tony Hoagland points to the way the meanings of words are subtly eroded over time, not just through common speech but through advertising, commerce, and politics. A corn chip bag intentionally contains a few less chips than before but it’s still called ‘The Big Grab.’ An absurd billboard sells “a beautiful girl / covered with melted cheese.” It feels like such an American poem, until Hoagland zooms out:

Confucius said this would happen:
that language would be hijacked and twisted
by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department
and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder
until no one would know how to build a staircase,
or to look at the teeth of a horse,
or when it is best to shut up.

Does Hoagland include himself as a “trickster”? Does making art give artists cover to deny their involvement in this crooked situation? Are advertisers, businessmen, and politicians the ultimate artists, toying with language until it breaks apart? Imagination is not a benign thing.

still from La Antena

“The present is no less dark than the past, and its mystery is equal to anything the future might hold.” Paul Auster, Ghosts

In La Antena, an Argentinian silent film, the voices of an entire city’s people are stolen by a malignant media mogul named Mr. TV. The people can still talk, but their words are spelled out above their heads, like text messages. Mr. TV doesn’t stop at stealing voices. In the final act of the film, he steals the words themselves as the people are lulled into a kind of hypnotized stupor by his television broadcasts. Random words flood the screen, floating into the air like let-go balloons.

La Antena was released in 2007, just before Twitter debuted, but it nonetheless feels like an early glimpse of social media’s cancerous growth on society. Social media advertises itself as giving “voice” to everyone, but it is a new Tower of Babel where context collapses under the weight of so many voices: a cat meme, followed by a police brutality video, followed by a photo of your friend’s delicious brunch, followed by an advertisement, followed by a political half-truth, followed by a link to an Article You Have To Read Right Now, ad infinitum. In this world, so many voices and words are rendered meaningless, which is the same as stealing voices and words.

City Of Glass, Paul Auster’s first story in his New York Trilogy, is nominally a detective novel, but one interested in the mystery of language. His characters are trapped by words and definitions, every dawning truth leading to another room in an endless, onion-like maze. At one point, Peter Stillman, the foil to the writer-turned-detective Daniel Quinn, declares that “unless we can begin to embody the notion of change in the words we use, we will continue to be lost.” He asks, can a broken umbrella still be named an “umbrella,” or does it need a new name to describe it? Stillman, by the way, is also an insane, religious quasi-criminal, hell-bent on tearing down the Tower of Babel that invisibly surrounds all of our speech and spirituality. He later commits suicide, but it’s offscreen, and you’re not sure if you can trust that information.

How do we repair broken words? Is an umbrella still called an umbrella if it lets in the rain? Auster repeatedly points to the Old Testament command to name all the animals and plants in the world; the very act of naming gives them life. It appears that it is up to us to rename the world.

Word Music

Calm, collected, collage

MF DOOM died on October 31, but in true mysterious MF DOOM fashion, the news didn’t break until December 31. He always cloaked himself in a shroud: the metal mask, the consistently inconsistent release dates, the obtuse art-rap. But that shroud drew a lot of people–myself included–closer. Just the cover of Madvillainy is enough of a black hole. “DOOM barricaded behind the iron mask, eyes like arrowheads, weight of the world in his retinas,” as Jeff Weiss describes it. “The color scheme is sepulchral grey; the mask is scarred and battered, but stolidly intact.”

DOOM’s dreamworld wasn’t just looks. It was built around the very sound of words themselves. We’re trained to look only for meaning in language, but the musicality of certain words together can trascend meaning, opening up new spaces, new possibilities through rhythm and friction. It bypasses your rational brain; you can feel it before you notice it. DOOM was a master at this, cramming every nook and cranny with references to the Bible, cartoons, pop culture odds-and-ends, and literary villains, the words carefully chosen not just for what they convey, but for the sounds they’re masked in. On Madvillainy, his verses mirror Madlib’s chopped-up beats and samples. It’s a total soundworld, a comic book made for the ears, so fast and so deep you just have to let it wash over you. If you stand still, it’s already gone.

On “Rhinestone Cowboy,” he cycles through vowel sounds, savoring them and spitting them out like a sommelier:

“Hold the cold one like he hold a old gun
Like he hold the microphone and stole the show for fun
Or a foe for ransom, flows is handsome
O’s in tandem, anthem, random tantrum
Phantom of the Grand Ole Opry, ask the dumb hottie
Masked, pump-shotty—somebody stop me
Hardly come sloppy on a retarded hard copy
After rockin’ parties he departed in a jalopy
Watch the droptop papi”

DOOM turns language into another instrument, and it almost doesn’t matter what he’s saying. It’s how he says it and how it hits with the rhythm, the keening Brazilian pop sample egging him on in the background.

It makes me think of other songs and artists that are attuned to the music of language. There’s Bob Dylan, of course, unleashing the proto-rap of “Subterranean Homesick Blues:” “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement thinkin’ ’bout the government.” It clatters downhill like a locomotive, or maybe the rhythm comes from living around noisy New York subways for so many years. The specific words are just as barbed as the twangy guitar: when you string together basement/mixing/medicine and pavement/thinking/government, you can’t help but sound spiky.

More spike, but in an unlikely place: Tame Impala’s “Elephant.” “He pulled the mirrors off his Cadillac / Cause he doesn’t like it looking like he looks back.” “Elephant” lurches like a Cadillac, and all those “k” sounds in the second line could be the sound of shattering glass, those mirrors hitting the ground.

For Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, his lyrics often start with “mumble tracks,” just singing nonsense over a rhythm and chord progression. Those mumbles work their way into language, blurring the line between dream and reality, nonsense and direct language. “Poor Places”–off an album that explores miscommunication and crossed wires, both lyrically and sonically–feels like a hallucination, and the words sound suitably ghostly: “It’s my father’s voice trailing off / Sailors sailing off in the morning / For the air-conditioned rooms at the top of the stairs.” Tweedy often points out that our brains are hardwired to find and create sense out of information. His lyrics stretch the limits of this, and part of the fun is the construction of meaning in your own mind. You finish the song, depending on how you make sense of it.

Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins is another master of senseless sense. There comes a time in every Cocteau Twins fan’s life when they look up the actual lyrics and see how relentlessly wrong they’ve been singing their songs all these years. But again, it doesn’t matter. The rounded, reverberous words on “Lorelai” are so emotionally charged by Fraser’s voice, your body knows what the song’s “about” even if your brain doesn’t.

There’s such a finality to Nick Cave’s “Push The Sky Away,” a kind of bleak, beautiful stubborness that’s his artistic wheelhouse. “I’ve got a feeling that I just can’t shake / I got a feeling that just won’t go away / You got to just keep on pushing it / Keep on pushing it / Push the sky away.” The short, simple words seem to stumble over themselves, dragging their feet but moving forward one step at a time. “Got,” “shake,” “keep,” “it,” all clipped, sudden sounds. They are birds unwilling to leave the nest without a push, but that gravity makes the song soar.